If you are having problems with your 1, 2, or 3 year old sleeping through the night, or they’re waking up at the crack of dawn, you’re going to want to listen to this whole episode because I have my favorite sleep expert here, Becca Campbell of Little Z’s Sleep, mom of 2, former elementary school teacher turned sleep consultant who has helped thousands of families through coaching and online courses, including my family, to get the peaceful, restful sleep that they deserve.
I’m Kacie Barnes, host of Feeding Toddlers Made Easy, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist from mamaknowsnutrition.com. On Feeding Toddlers Made Easy I answer your questions about feeding your toddler, help solve picky eating struggles, and give you tricks to get your little ones to eat healthier.
Here are some of the topics we cover in today’s episode:
- At what age can a child sleep through the night without eating?
- At what age does a bedtime bottle stop being appropriate?
- What if they use a bottle to fall asleep?
- What do you want to do (and not do) for the best bedtime routine for toddlers?
- What about milk right in the morning when they wake up?
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Milk and Sleep: Does My Baby Need to Eat at Night?
So we’re going to jump right into it- and today we’re talking toddler sleep. I know you cover babies, toddlers, kids- you cover it all- but today we’re going to talk about little ones who probably don’t need to be eating at night anymore, the correlation between milk and sleeping, and all of that. So let’s first talk about: at what age can a child sleep through the night without eating?
B: So I feel like this is a big asterisk conversation, there’s going to be a lot of, ‘Wait! If this…wait, what about that?’ So, I’ll say simply – in my teaching and in my online courses from six months on we do not have night time feeds. But asterisks! Talk to your medical professional, talk to your child’s pediatrician.
But this morning, I had my team meeting and my executive assistant has an eight-week-old who’s sleeping 12 hours through the night just because he’s doing it! He’s fine, he’s a healthy weight, she’s been doing all of our new born principles and it’s been fine, so…there are times like that and that’s okay. When I say six months, it doesn’t mean it is wrong if you have an under six-month-old who is not waking up to eat- they do that. Do your thing. But in our courses, six months and up- no night time feeds.
Battle with the Bedtime Bottle
K: Okay! So when we’re at that toddler stage and we’re cutting down on those feeds, we’re not doing night time feeds. You’re saying they don’t need to. When does the bedtime bottle stop being a thing? Or what do we need to know about the bedtime bottle?
B: Yes, so I feel like this is not talked about often enough, and I certainly wasn’t educated on it when I got all of my base sleep training knowledge. You can only really find information from kidshelp.org saying, ‘Oh, by one year, let’s stop doing bottles and get them off of bottles developmentally…’ but no one’s talking about the impact that it can have on the night-time sleep- which again- I’ll preface our whole chat here by saying that it’s really difficult to find research on kids sleep because it’s kind of hard to do research on kids sleep. It’s a relatively new topic, people have only been studying sleep for like 50 years. As far as kids go, you’re not going to find a study about bedtime bottles and bedtime. That’s not a thing.
But what I have seen in my experience is knowing that if a bedtime bottle lingers after 13 months old, you’re going to have some troubles with this. So I give our families some leeway- between 12 and 13 months we need to be making a game plan to get off of the bottles and completely onto sippy cups. But that doesn’t mean we now invite a sippy cup into the bedtime routine between 12 and 13 months. That bedtime bottle is now at dinner, and they’re having a sippy cup of milk or water with dinner- not a bedtime feed.
Breaking Bad Bedtime Routine Habits
K: Okay. So if I have a mom listening who’s like, ‘Well, shoot, my kid is older than 12 months, and they use a bottle to still fall asleep,’ what are we telling that mom?
B: We’re telling that mom: first of all, let’s look at what you just said. They’re having that bottle to fall asleep, so therefore they’re not consciously thinking about the food that they’re putting into their bodies. I would ask that mom, ‘have you ever watched a show or scrolled your phone while you ate a snack, and then all of a sudden you look down, you’re like- shoot where did my food go?’ You don’t even remember eating because your mind is engaged in another activity, but your body is shoving food in your face. And that’s the same thing with the kid- this goes for newborns, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers.
You’ve got to be engaged mentally while you’re actually physically eating, and so for a bottle that’s happening at bed time or any time during the day, that’s saying, ‘okay- here is your mechanism for sleep, here’s a bottle for sleep.’ That’s not nourishment. I mean, it is, but it’s no nourishment that that child understands. So while you have been offering these ounces of milk, formula, breast milk, whatever- as what you perceive as nourishment, your child isn’t registering that. They’re registering, ‘okay, this is my ticket to sleep. I just have this and then I go to sleep.’
So that’s habit number one that we break. So once we say, ‘okay, now you’re going to be awake for your food,’ step two is if you’ve been doing that bedtime feed, you drastically move it to that dinner time. Or if you’re a nursing mom, just nurse before the bedtime routine. That’s a different topic, but for that bedtime bottle, I vividly remember the one day– obviously, it’s called cold turkey- one day it was at bed time, the next day it’s not! And I remember I gave Hattie her bottle- I was as done with bottles, I don’t know about you with Emilia, but I was like: “you’re 11 and a half months old. We’re going to start the process now…”
K: Emilia never took a bottle! So I would have loved to have that process, but she never took one!
B: I could not wait to be done with those Dr. Brown bottles because there’s so many pieces! So at 11 and a half, almost 12 months old, I started to make sure she was getting on to a sippy cup- and I also feel like that’s an aside- I should have done it before- but no one was talking about that like five years ago! Anyway… I know now.
Reworking the Bedtime Routine
But I remember just one day, there was no more bedtime bottle, it just wasn’t there! She had it during dinner, but she wasn’t thinking- she’s one, and so she just kind of looked at me after the bath and she was like, ‘baba?’ And I said, ‘no, we’re going to read a book now.’ I just distracted her. And yeah, there was a moment of like, ‘I’m sorry, what? I just had this for a whole year of my life, now you’re telling me no?’ But that’s the good thing about toddlers- they’re so easily distracted- oh, you want to read a book? Oh, you want to play? It is great to have those in the bedtime routine instead of a bedtime feed. So if you’ve been having a feed during that bedtime, it’s now during dinner. That milk goes to dinner, there’s no milk during bedtime. And instead of that, then maybe play for a few minutes with your toddler, read some extra books- something fun together.
K: Okay, so tell me what are the downsides if we do continue this prolonged bedtime bottle- what are the downsides of that?
B: So, a couple of things going on, and I’ll ping back and forth with you on the nutrition side of this! I’ll say first, around 12 to 13 months old, kids get separation anxiety- and most parents who are listening with a 12 to 13-month-old are like, ‘oh yes, I know that.’ And they’re super clingy. They know what you’re saying, but they can’t talk back to you yet, and so they’re frustrated. So they’re a little bit more clingy because of that. And so I’ve often seen that nursing or the bedtime bottle then kind of becomes that crux of like, ‘oh great, I’ll just kind of get more cozy and drowsy on you while we’re having this intimate moment of feeding my bottle.’
And then that invites wakings throughout the night because the child is becoming drowsy and falling asleep on a feed, which then they think they need that throughout the night.
But the bigger issue here is that you don’t need to be drinking ounces and ounces upon ounces of milk before you get into the bed, because that’s not gonna be helpful nutritionally. And please tell me if this is not quite right- but what I’ve learned from talking to you is that especially as they switch over to cow’s milk is the sugar and the carbohydrates are kind of causing a sugar crash and wakings throughout the night. So basically what we’re seeing is like a kid who’s drinking eight ounces of milk before bed, that’s not helping them fall asleep and stay asleep, it’s actually kind of hurting them later. Is that far off base?
K: No, that’s not off base! And another thing too is dental hygiene, too. We want to make sure that that becomes a thing we pay attention to.
Are You Sure They’re Not Hungry?
You mentioned toddlers waking up at night- so what I hear sometimes from parents is, ‘I don’t know- I think they’re hungry at night because…’
And I’m like, ‘Trust me, they’re not…’ You give them those opportunities during the day, they get all that they need during the day. Maybe once in a while they are hungry at night, but they shouldn’t be hungry every single night. So what can you tell us about those nighttime waking and them seeming hungry?
B: If a family thinks, ‘Oh no, they’ve got to have this because they’re hungry,’ then my first question is: are they wide awake and alert on every single one of their feeds throughout the entire 24 hours? Because most of the time they’re like, ‘No, they’re definitely getting heavy-eyed,’ and a lot of times you look at drowsiness and completely asleep as two different things- because there is a myth out there that says they should be drowsy but awake- which doesn’t exist. Erase that from your minds- that’s not a real thing.
K: I vividly remember trying to put Emilia down and thinking, ‘I don’t know- is she drowsy? She’s not asleep, but how do you know?!’
B: Exactly- that’s not a thing. And so if you look at this: they’re not supposed to be drowsy while they’re eating- heavy eyed, drowsy, eyes disengaged, you could wave a hand in front of their face and they’re tuned out. If that’s happening, they’re not consciously recognizing- their brain and their stomach aren’t talking like, ‘hey, I’m filling up right now, I’m getting full!’
So that’s the number one problem when they’re offering those night time feeds. When you wake up several times a night, you’re not fully awake and alert and your baby and your toddler aren’t either. So that’s number one- I guarantee you, if you are offering feeds at night, they’re probably not even awake on it. The second thing- the foundation of what you teach- is you’ve given them plenty of opportunity throughout the day to actually eat. And we are parents and it is hard to say no, but we know that if we have given your opportunity for your toddler to eat throughout the day, you have to say no at night because that’s not when the kitchen is open, that’s not when our bodies need to be eating. You’ve got to have a break, your body has to process, your body has to get ready for the next day, and sleep is the foundation of that. So they’re not hungry. They’re also smart- they know if that night time option exists.
K: Yeah. I can relate to the struggles, though, of waking up with your toddler in the night and not knowing what to do. I’m so tired, I just want to get them to sleep. So in your programs, is this something that you address for toddler sleep- those middle of the night wakeups?
Milk with a Meal
B: You know what’s funny is we don’t even talk about it. We do talk about: milk is gone, so it’s more common that- we’re looking at for a toddler- they’re having milk at bedtime, which is then causing the milk in the night time. So in our program, yes, I say, ‘Hey, by the way, if your child is drinking a sippy cup of milk, even if it is in a sippy cup and not a bottle- that’s still milk during the bedtime routine- and honestly, if you just do that one thing and remove that and do nothing else, you’ll probably see a tremendous difference in what happens during the night time because you’re removing that prop that helps your child get drowsy.’
I worked with an 18-month-old years ago, and he wasn’t even having a bottle or a sippy cup in his room, so the parents didn’t think to tell me about it because they thought, ‘oh well it’s not in the bedroom- so it doesn’t matter.’ But it was right before they went into the room to do the bedtime routine that Charlie got a sippy cup of milk. They sent me a picture one day- which was really funny because they thought it would just be cute- but there was Charlie drinking his milk, lounging on the couch with a sippy cup, laying down, his eyes were getting droopy- and I was like, ‘your kid is getting drowsy!’
So, you just need to make sure- and we talk about this in our program- that any food is eaten wide awake and alert, milk is with a meal. And you have really helped us with that as well- milk is a beverage, not a main meal. So you’re having milk with your meal and you don’t need to have milk eight times a day. Do you ever see the parents get stuck in the baby thinking of kids needing milk every three hours?
B: But it’s like, ‘no, you’re two.’
K: Yes, I know! They change so fast and it’s hard to keep up with all those changes, but I really do think that over-use of milk is a huge problem with picky eating too. Like when you were describing him lounging on the couch- I’ve seen so many of those kids attached to those sippy cups. Yes, it is comforting, but we can break that cycle for them and we can bring the milk to the meals, and that makes such a huge difference.
B: Absolutely. And you talked about how we make sure they’re not hungry during the night time. Well, if they’re primarily drinking milk and they’re not even getting what they need to be getting, then they actually may be hungry because they didn’t eat during the day. So use all of Kacie’s tips as well to help you get on track of getting your kid actually eating food and not just downing half a gallon of milk per day.
K: Yes, I think I have an episode on grazing- I’m gonna have to check- I’ll put that in the show notes- because yeah, that definitely can cause them to not get as much as they need.
Morning Milk Routine
Okay, let’s talk about the flip side of things- in the morning. What about milk in the morning right when they wake up.
B: Yes, I teach about these: I just call them the milk book ends. I should have a graphic of two sippy cups as your bookends for you! Basically, if you’re offering a bedtime one, that’s going to be detrimental for your nighttime. But if you offer one first thing in the morning- well, why do you think they’re waking up at 4:30 or 5:00 AM? Milk is their favorite thing in the whole wide world, and if they know they can get it instantaneously, then all is fair.
I have audibly heard family members, nieces and nephews screaming in the morning, “MILK!!! MILK!!”
You’ve heard it from your kid, I’ve heard it from my clients, but that milk fixation is so strong for a toddler. I want you to look at what happens in the first 10 to 15 minutes of when your child gets up for the day. If in the first 10 to 15 minutes they get a sippy cup of milk, then that has to immediately end, because I guarantee you that’s why they’re waking up early- because they know as soon as I get up, I get a sippy cup of milk, I get my TV and I get to chill. And who wouldn’t wanna get up for that first thing in the morning, especially a toddler!?
So as hard as it is- that first 10 to 15 minutes when it is time to get up- you’re going to do a big start to the day. Go in their room- ‘Good morning! So good to see you! I love you!’ Even if you’re not feeling it- just do it. Open up the curtains. Open up the blinds. It was such a good night! Look, the sun is coming up. Oh, let’s go feed the dog, let’s go see your sister, let’s go start the coffee maker- whatever you want to do.
I would also give a little aside: when I say don’t give your kid the milk in these first 10 to 15 minutes, I also don’t want you to hold your child for the first 10 to 15 minutes. Babies are different, but for a toddler who can walk around and move around and play around, don’t replace the sippy cup with just holding them for 10-15 minutes and just lounging around because- again, a whole other issue for them to be getting up and thinking, ‘Yes, cuddles first thing in the morning!’
Cuddles are not bad- hear me on that, but we can offer that in a well-lit area that is not inviting the concept of: let’s go back to sleep now. So get them out of their crib, change them or go potty, start the day really big, put them down, let them start playing with their toys- whatever. Then we can offer breakfast with milk, so it’s not a separator and it’s not a place holder to say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like making breakfast yet so just go have this milk.’ It’s so easy to do that.
K: Yeah, that’s so interesting. So you’re saying that we as parents have that thought, ‘Oh okay, I can give them that milk in the morning. That’s easy, that’s fast. But that actually can be making them wake up earlier than we want them to- so it’s making our lives harder, not easier.’ That’s counterintuitive!
B: It’s going to be a rough couple of mornings when you break this habit, but it must be done. It’s going to make it a lot easier for you to do this. We’ll put a plug for Days with Grey, she’s got a whole breakfast invitation– so one of my team members did this really well when she transitioned off of no morning milk. She started doing this breakfast invitation, breakfast playtime kind of thing- and that was enough to make her toddler think, ‘Oh, I don’t care about milk! No, I get to go manipulate things and color and all that kind of fun stuff!’ So having an alternative activity for them to do is helpful, and it’s really that celebration of them becoming more independent- they don’t instantly need to get up and have milk like they did when they were babies. So they’re growing, they’re changing. And that’s all good.
K: So tell me this, if you have a kid who comes into your room in the morning and wants to get in your bed and you let them and say, ‘Okay, let’s go back to sleep…’- is that also gonna invite them to wake up earlier and earlier?
B: Oh, 100%. Who wouldn’t want to get up and get to snuggle? On Saturday mornings, that’s when the girls know- our kids are older now, they know what Saturday is- but they know ‘Okay, on Saturdays, that’s when I can come and say hi.’ We don’t ever go back to sleep just because they’re wiggle worms.
But yes, if the precedent set is: whenever you get up, I don’t care, just come in bed with me. It’s too early- that will always creep earlier and earlier and earlier, because why not? There’s no boundaries and there’s no expectation/rules on ‘this is when you can actually get up to start the day’, so here- insert Hatch clocks or toddler clocks- things that let a child know, ‘okay, now it’s time to get up, it’s not time to come into mommy’s room yet, or it’s not time to come out of your room yet, but when the clock turns blue, that’s when you can.’
And then after that, you know, I’m fine. If you want to have cuddles in the morning- again, cuddles are great, I’m not an anti-cuddle person- but maybe let’s have the lights on and the wind curtains open so that it’s clearly daylight here. And when we get up to start our day, it’s fine if you have some chill time, but if the problem has been your kid is waking up early because they want to come to your room- then we have to end that habit as well.
Fall Asleep and Sleep Well
K: Okay. So this is all very, very helpful. There’s so many things- it’s kind of like feeding kids too, where you think, ‘This should be so intuitive, this should be so easy. Sleep should just happen,’ and then you have kids and you realize- no, it doesn’t usually. Well, for some people, I’m sure it does, but for some of us it doesn’t.
B: This is a whole aside, but obviously, you and I have talked about this- sleep is so polarizing. Nobody is going to say, ‘You should not feed your child healthy.’ Everybody is going to agree that that’s a good thing.
Thankfully, I have an incredible audience and community and I don’t get a lot of silly stuff being said, but I do hear things like, ‘Kids just know how to do this.’ No, they don’t. If kids just knew how to fall asleep and sleep well, I wouldn’t have a job. I wouldn’t have helped thousands of families if kids just knew this. And as parents, we’re not just supposed to know this either. Don’t feel guilty if you just don’t all of a sudden have this ‘Aha! I should have thought about that!’ No, there’s a reason that we have help!
Consistency is King for Toddler Bedtime Routine
K: Okay, the last thing that I want to talk about is: what do we want to do or not do to have a good bedtime routine in place for our toddlers?
B: Okay, so you do want to have consistent steps that lead to getting into bed and going to sleep independently, and these steps can include things like having a bath or a shower, getting your PJ’s on, brushing your teeth, reading some books, playing together, doing a puzzle- something that is consistent every single night. You’re not changing it up. It’s not like they don’t know what to expect every night- it’s the same steps over and over again that then end with them getting into their bed and being able to fall asleep independently within 10 to 15 minutes. For any toddler and child, that’s about how long it should take. Even for adults it should be about 15 to 20 minutes for us to be able to fall asleep. For a kid, about 10 to 15 minutes falling asleep- blissful sleep.
I would say don’t include the milk in that bed time routine if your child is 13 months and above. At those ages, they don’t need that milk anymore. Put that during the dinner time and we are not inviting any kind of snack or beverage besides a quick sip of water in the bedtime routine.
Add a Pre-Bedtime Snack
You posted about this the other day and I shared it, and a ton of people messaged saying it was so good. It was a good piggy back because you were talking about the timing of snacks- it was your post about offering a bedtime snack before bedtime. If it’s been like an hour and a half to two hours between dinner and bedtime, do offer a bedtime snack but do it before you actually start the bedtime routine.
K: Yes, yes, that is very helpful to say. I think so many parents have that fear that their kid is not going to be full if they didn’t eat well at dinner. So I say: you can put the bedtime snack in the routine, especially if dinner is at five and bedtime is at 7:00 or 7:30. I’m fine with that, but I guess I do need to specify that we need to have it separate from the bedtime situation.
B: Yeah, because then how fun is it to have peanut butter crackers in your room, right? Its so fun. And they’re going to want to do that again the next day. So I suggest: go back to the table, go back to sit down where you had your meal and have the snack there. I’m probably a little mean, because I say also if they didn’t eat their dinner and they seemed to like it maybe they just weren’t hungry so offer that again.
K: I’m fine with that too. I always say make bedtime snack boring. It should not be anything fun. You can re-offer dinner, that’s totally fine. My kids are at the age where if they didn’t eat at dinner, they know there’s nothing later, but especially when you have a one-year-old, that’s a little bit harder to implement.
B: Yeah. It’s definitely helpful information, especially with milk. Milk is always looming in the corner. I’ve seen so often that parents don’t understand what could be the problem:
I don’t know why my kid wakes up so early!
Was there milk?
Well, that’s exactly why.
It’s the one quick solution. There’s not a lot related to sleep where I would say, ‘If you do this one thing, it’s like a magic wand. It’ll fix everything!’ But this really is one of those things that just works and it works really quickly.
A + B Doesn’t Always Equal C
K: That’s amazing. Now, I have a question for you- one last thing- because when you said that they should be falling asleep within 10 to 15 minutes…
B: Except Emilia. She’s our special little butterfly!
K: She turns on her lights, she’ll have elaborate setups in her room with all of her stuffed animals and she finds hair clips- anything that’s there- she’s creating some sort of world with it.
B: Yeah, I knew you were going to say that, but…
K: Okay, but she’s the exception, not the rule.
B: Well, it is interesting! This is a whole world that I’m starting to learn more about and uncover: there are certain kids this just doesn’t work for. Because what you and I do is not magic. There are some kids that it just doesn’t work for; something else is probably happening. And I had a client who was probably one of my top three most difficult- this girl and Emilia would have been best buds! The kid’s mom was like, ‘Well, I’m also a terrible sleeper, so I just feel like it’s my fault, it’s my hereditary thing that we’re just not sleepers,’ and I just refuse to believe that! It’s just not a thing because we all need sleep!
Anyways, she actually messaged me last week- she’s like 38, 39, she and her daughter were both diagnosed with tongue tie, which is a reason for sleep apnea. This is becoming a more widespread thing. This little girl had no problems- nursing, eating, none of that- but tongue ties are becoming increasingly linked to sleep apnea because they’re not able to get the right kind of oxygen- or maybe not getting enough oxygen.
We already know that mouth breathing and snoring- those are things you need to get that checked out- ASAP- that’s bad. We need to get that fixed so you can sleep better. But tongue ties are also one of the things that is being linked, so I’d be curious if there was anything there with Emilia because she kind of falls in that category of interesting sleep habits.
K: While you’re talking, I’m testing my tongue flexibility.
B: I know as I actually want to get Ellie looked at because I can tell she has a really strong tongue tie, we had a horrible time breastfeeding- which maybe is one indicator- but she sleeps fine. But I would still be interested to know.
K: Emilia actually had to get hers lasered; she did have a tongue tie.
B: So, it’s a whole new world out there. It’s a new type of- not discovery, but it’s a new type of thing being talked about in the world of sleep- tongue ties. I have so many other things to say about that but I won’t go down rabbit trails right now!
K: Okay, tell people where they can find help for sleep if they need it.
B: Yes. Okay, so everything is Little Z Sleep. LittleZSleep.com, Instagram, YouTube, podcast. That’s where you’ll find us.
K: Awesome! Becca, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. This is so helpful.
B: Absolutely, thanks for having me.
Where to find Little Z Sleep: